The Vengeance of Reach by Cailus
Revenge of a Goddess
Date: 11 January 2013, 1:28 pm
0630 HOURS, SEPTEMBER 11, 2553 (MILITARY CALENDER)
SLIPSTREAM SPACE PROXIMATE TO EPSILON ERIDANDI SYSTEM
ONBOARD UNSC FRIGATE ATHENA
After 8 months and twenty four days, the warship Athena finally awoke from its slumber. Automated protocols began warming up the cold AI core, and hundreds of cryo pods throughout the ship began the gradual process of waking their occupants. The fusion reactors, operating at the bare minimum for months, began to slowly warm up to normal operating levels and supply the ship with lifegiving power.
The first inhabitant of the ship's five hundred complement to wake was of the electronic variety. It was a gradual process, as the AI, Monty, had spent the majority of the Athena's journey in his own equivalent of 'sleep'. With no immediate need to hurry, he took several seconds to 'dust off the cobwebs', carefully running self-checks on his vast array of software and hardware. Montgomery was understandably worried. In the entire history of artificial intelligence, none of his brethren had ever 'slept' for more than a few days; he was now waking after a solid eight months.
The self-diagnostics came back positive, and after a microsecond to process his relief, Monty turned his attention towards the rest of the frigate, whose automated systems were already well under way reactivating the ship. At the fore of the vessel, directly behind the bridge, twenty pods disgorged their occupants.
Captain Hoshi Zhukov recoiled automatically at the feeling of cold, even as she simultaneously regurgitated a steady stream of fluids onto the deck. All around her, the command crew of the Athena did exactly the same thing, accompanied (predictably) with swearing and curses over the UNSC's Medical Corps. Hoshi very nearly joined them-the CRF tasted like arse-but forced herself to stay stoic, and even more reluctantly, to walk out into the cold. She, like the rest of them, was stark naked, one of the unfortunate consequences of cryostasis technology, and was eager to grab a uniform. Not from any semblance of modesty, but because it was damned cold.
Everyone else quickly followed her example, and as Hoshi put on her pants, she asked "Ship status?"
"Nominal ma'am," came the disembodied voice from above. "All ship systems report ready for operation. Fusion reactors are in Beta-cycling. MAC gun is online and at 0% capacitor charge. Archer missile pods A-M are filled and ready."
At this, Monty audibly sighed over the comn. "Still heavily damaged, but nominally operating at 5% efficiency. We might be the slowest interstellar spacecraft in the galaxy, but we are interstellar."
"And you?" Hoshi asked carefully.
"Apparently fine, although long term effects of my...slumber...are impossible to predict. As you know, this is unprecedented."
Hoshi sighed in relief. "But necessary. You're our first priority when we get to Reach, at any rate. Speaking of which-"
"Ten minutes to transition," Monty supplied. "No communications received thus far, although given our entry vector and relatively low mass, that is hardly unexpected. After all, Onyx is classified."
"No kidding," Hoshi grumbled. She fumbled with the clips of her bra even as she walked the short distance to the bridge, which lit up welcomingly before her. "And our guests?"
"Still in cryo stasis, as ordered," Monty replied. Hoshi noted the tightness in his electronic voice. "It's worth noting, ma'am, that keeping three hundred cryo pods online simultaneously is a significant drain on our coolant supply while the reactors are under operation. I can provide only limited sublight acceleration."
Hoshi shrugged as she closed her uniform jacket to Monty's holographic avatar, who was himself only half dressed in his own holographic clothes: a 20th century uniform, for his namesake . "Well, I doubt we'll have to go to combat velocities in Reach orbit, but noted. Keep them chilled for now." Behind her, the rest of the command crew followed slowly, all still shaking off the effects of their hibernation. "Any medical complications?"
"Nothing significant," Monty replied chirpily. He glanced at the man at the helm console with a devilish grin. "Feeling a bit...hot, lieutenant?"
Emile Harman replied with a firm middle finger, even as he typed in commands with his other hand. Hoshi knew better than to ask, knowing full well the effects of cryo on the libido of some officers, and scowled at Monty's avatar.
"Ten seconds to transition," he muttered hastily, noticing her expression.
At this, everyone on the bridge turned forward to the Athena's large forward viewport. After four years prowling the frontiers of UNSC-controlled space, they were all eager to see the Athena's birthplace, often named the second homeworld of humanity, and all held their collective breath...
...and held it.
Hoshi stared. They all did. Even Montgomery, with thought processes and reactions many thousands times faster than his crew, did nothing but stare.
Reach burned. The entire planet, from pole to pole, was covered in raging red fire. The vast oceans were non-existent. With no cloud cover whatsoever, the crew of the Athena had a perfect view of the planet.
"No..." Hoshi whispered. She squinted, desperately trying to discern surface details, but gave up. "Monty, tell me this isn't what I think it is. Tell me."
The half second hesitation was all the confirmation they needed. "Mass and magnetic field readings all confirm. This is Reach. Surface temperature is...inhospitable. From the radioactive decay, I'd guess it happened around a year ago. Detecting significant debris field in high orbit. Composite details match for titanium-A and known Covenant alloys." He paused again. "Reading substantial Covenant alloys, at least twice as much. We gave them a fight, at least."
Hoshi closed her eyes for a second. "Didn't change much," she said quietly. "Any active signals?"
"Unknown," Monty replied. "The sheer amount of debris makes an active scan difficult. I'm detecting the remains of approximately four hundred and fifty capital ships in local space, and the remains of multiple nuclear detonations. Also detecting twenty molten objects that match up with the MAC guns."
In front of Hoshi, lieutenant Harman, the helm officer, looked vaguely sick. He was clearly taking pains to keep his stomach contents where they belonged, but turned to her anyway. "Ma'am, with all the stray radiation and debris, this is an ideal ambush point."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Hoshi replied tersely, and tapped a button on her chair. "All hands, we are now at combat alert alpha. Load the MAC gun, and bring the reactors to 80%. Helm, take us on a slingshot trajectory, out-system. Monty, wake up our passengers and get them to the cargo bay."
As the crew bustled in response, she leaned forward, staring out at her burned homeworld. Captain Hoshi Zhukov shivered.
Ten minutes later, the inevitable happened.
"Alert!" came the announcement from the ship's sensor officer. "Covenant impulse signature detected, climbing from Reach's surface. Reads...frigate class."
Hoshi stood immediately, her hands balled into fists. Perfect. "Get me a MAC and Archer solution, right now. Fire the second you have a lock."
The crew and Monty reacted instantly; the words were barely out of Hoshi's mouth before a powerful thud echoed throughout the ship, and a massive bullet was thrust out at the planet. Seconds later, dozens of Archer missiles flew forth, perfectly timed.
Tactically speaking, a fast strike was the best option. In a straight fight, the Athena was no match for a Covenant frigate, which was superior in every respect; they could only hope for a good hit, and the opportunity to run like hell.
"Impact in five...four...three...two..." Hoshi gripped her fist viciously, and glared at the enemy warship as it rose to meet them. It tried to desperately maneuver away, but against a gravity well, the frigate's options were limited, and could do nothing to stop the MAC round from smashing into its shields.
The result was spectacular. Ordinarily, a MAC round would never be able to penetrate Covenant energy shields at full power, but this was a special circumstance, as the Athena roared towards Reach with all the speed she could muster. Coupled with the aliens' own momentum in the opposite direction, the MAC round's kinetic energy was massive; the energy shields crumpled instantly, and the round gutted the Covenant ship from stem to stern. The next second, Archer missiles detonated against the frigate's hull, and seconds later, it crumpled into a bright blue implosion.
Hoshi sighed explosively, sitting back down. "Survivors?"
"None ma'am," the sensor officer reported breathlessly. "Got 'em."
Under normal circumstances, this would've elicited a cheer, or at least some sort of celebration. Today, only grim smiles. A tiny bit of vengeance compared to the devastation around them, but vengeance nevertheless.
"Ma'am," her tactical officer piped up. "Gamma Company reports awake and ready for action. Eager for action, even." The willowy tactical officer hesitated, and a slow smile crept across her face. "Captain Abrams also reports ready, and more eager for action. Damn, they're pissed..."
"Fifty ODSTs beaten to action stations by three hundred greenhorns?" Hoshi remarked drily. "He's got reason to be." Looking back to the molten planet swiftly growing before them-the captain refused to think of it as Reach-she leaned forward. It was highly unlikely there were any more Covenant ships here, else they'd have launched a simultaneous attack, but there was something about this that didn't feel particularly right. Certainly the Athena had destroyed Covenant ships before, but never in a straight up fight like that, and never so easily. The alien ship commander had chosen an immensely poor ambush position; he hadn't even fired off a plasma charge, or pulse lasers. Admittedly he'd had only a few seconds to react to the incoming Athena, but still...
"Contact!" the sensor officer shouted. "Reading...UNSC IFF, 2906-3542F, Jolly Roger. Frigate class, eighteen thousand kilometres to port." He hesitated. "Not seeing it..."
Monty, who had been quiet for the last minutes, popped up on his holographic tower, clearly concerned. "I've got no record of a Jolly Roger, planned or commissioned, in the UNSC Navy. That ID tag shouldn't even be in service till at least 2555. It may be a false IFF. I'm also having difficulty getting a firm lock on the signal source, around the L5 lagrange point. This is impossible. I should be reading some mass."
"It's a Black Widow satellite," Hoshi replied with a faint smile. It always gave her a buzz to outsmart the twenty year old AI. He was incredibly intelligent in the art of space warfare, but often lacked a broader instinct in that regard, a comforting combination for any CO. "Probably placed there long before we arrived. Comn it. Helm, maintain slingshot trajectory. Slipspace capacitors?"
"Holding steady at 40%," Monty reported.
Hoshi hesitated, then nodded. "Trickle charge them from the excess reactor heat. I want a random jump solution as soon as we break out of the slingshot, and full charge before we reach minimum velocity."
"You don't ask for much," Monty replied drily. "By the way, I've got an encrypted comn reply from that false IFF. The codes are valid, even if the IFF isn't."
Hoshi gestured as she stood back up, and Monty promptly stepped aside on his holographic podium. The image distorted a little, before revealing a rather unimpressive young man. He appeared to have a blend of Asian and African features, and an exceptionally serious face, even through the low-quality holoimager.
"Commander Abel Hamalki, commanding officer UNSC Twilight," he reported, saluting. "Apologies for the false IFF ma'am, but we didn't want to give away our identity to any eavesdroppers, and an encrypted signal alone might have been missed."
"Captain Hoshi Zhukov, commanding officer UNSC Athena." She raised her eyebrows at Abel's strict adherence to protocol as he stood stiffly at attention; very few senior officers actually did that during holo-conference. "At ease, Commander, and report."
Lowering his hand mechanically, her counterpart visibly bit his lip. "Ah...hard to know where to begin, ma'am. Time is limited."
Several of the officers around Hoshi rolled their eyes, and a couple even chuckled under their breath. "Start with the present situation, Commander. Forces deployed in-system and mission parameters."
"Yes ma'am. Twilight is a prowler, attached to Battlegroup Halcyon, under Rear Admiral Gomez. One cruiser, one frigate, two destroyers; UNSC ships Halcyon, Ghosts of Harvest, Waterloo and Bombay. Mission objective is to purge Epsilon Eridani of all Covenant forces. We've seen at least seven Covenant capital ships since arriving in-system last week, including the one you just destroyed."
In an instant, every bridge officer turned to Hoshi. She knew that they each had a thousand questions for the prowler commander, but one was paramount.
She stiffened under their eyes, and asked "Is Earth safe?"
Abel blinked rapidly in response, but nodded. "Yes ma'am. Bit singed, but safe. The Twilight was commissioned at the Luna Orbitals only three weeks ago."
Hoshi nodded curtly, resisting the urge to show her relief. "And the rest of your battlegroup?"
"Holding position in the outer asteroid field, ma'am, on one of the planetoids. Twilight is on the return end of a cold slingshot around Reach, standard stealth and scout. An hour either way, and we wouldn't have seen you."
"Lucky us," Hoshi replied with a smile. Predictably, Abel's expression remained a rock, and her smile faded. "If you don't mind me saying so, four versus seven is a bit of a mismatch. How exactly is the Admiral supposed to accomplish his mission?"
"Mismatch, ma'am?" The prowler commander frowned. "Not any more, sir. Things have changed. Everything has changed."
Vengeance for a Sister
Date: 18 January 2013, 1:33 am
0810 HOURS, SEPTEMBER 11, 2553 (MILITARY CALENDAR)
ASTEROID FIELD, EPSILON ERIDANI SYSTEM
ONBOARD UNSC HALCYON
Generally speaking, when junior officers pictured the life of the admiralty, they conjured up images of the vast HIGHCOM base in Sydney, or the gleaming monolithic spires of Beijing. Or, for space-faring admirals like Rear Admiral Louis Gomez, they might think of the shiny Marathon-class cruisers that formed the core of the UNSC; immense technological marvels, with big offices for their flag officers. Certainly this had been what Gomez had thought upon his promotion five years earlier. The irony of his current situation was not lost on him.
Although the Halcyon was a cruiser, one of the largest craft in the UNSC, the ship had never actually been designed with flag officers in mind...that, or its designers didn't think an admiral required special accommodation. Thus, when the engineers at the Luna Orbitals refitted the ship, they'd had to make do with what they had when installing an office for Gomez. The result was an office squeezed inbetween the Bridge and the Officer's Mess, and it was tiny, scarcely much larger than a standard Warthog. His desk was a shredded piece of deckplate from the Halcyon's very first engagement, a 'piece of ship's history' according to the captain; however, the re-sculpted metal was an exceptionally cold and comfortless surface. The rest of the room wasn't much better, a bleak metallic grey. Gomez had put up a number of pictures and such to decorate the space, including a large landscape painting of the Halcyon itself, but the office was still ugly as hell, and more cramped than an HEV pod.
A sharp whistle interrupted the admiral's internal griping, and he raised his head from his paperwork to a small holographic terminal next to the door. On it popped up a ten centimeter tall officer, who appeared ten years older than Gomez himself: Captain Holmes, probably the oldest captain in the fleet. And most decorated, by a considerable margin.
"Got a message from the Twilight, sir."
The admiral frowned, and glanced at his watch. "They're two hours early. I assume they found something out there."
"Yes sir," the officer replied with a curt nod. "But you won't quite believe it. At 0655, Commander Hamalki made contact with the Athena, in Reach orbit."
Gomez blinked rapidly, momentarily floored. "Athena? A frigate under Hoshi Zhukov?"
"Yes sir," Holmes replied. "Hamalki went through all the standard recognition procedures; it's definitely her. They've linked up in a rough formation on the outer end of a slingshot around Reach, headed in our general direction. Apparently, the Athena is more or less at full combat readiness. They destroyed a Covenant frigate right after they got here, climbing out of Reach's gravity well."
"Lucky us," Gomez muttered. He leaned back, running a hand through his raven black hair. "I assume there was a classified tag with that message, marked Eyes Only."
Holmes visibly raised his eyebrows, but nodded anyway. "Beyond my clearance, anyway. Hannah is forwarding it to you now."
In actuality, Gomez suspected that he knew what was about to be sent his way, but opened the file anyway. He skimmed the first few lines before sighing, then standing up awkwardly and maneuvering around his desk . "Warm up the fleet, captain. Full combat alert. Disperse to defensive position Beta. The Athena must survive, at all costs."
The Halcyon's captain snapped to attention, nodding. "Yes sir, we'll get them."
His image flickered out with a splutter as Gomez stepped past, full of determination and a tinge of satisfaction. Today was going to be a long day-but at least he could get out of that damned office.
0850 HOURS, SEPTEMBER 11, 2553 (MILITARY CALENDAR)
INTERPLANETARY SPACE, EPSILON ERIDANI SYSTEM
ONBOARD UNSC ATHENA
Over two hours after the Athena had exited Slipspace, Hoshi sat in her command chair, quietly brooding. Of course, if asked, she would've called it 'meditating', but none of the crew would ever do that. Except, perhaps, Monty...but he was remarkably tactful, for an AI.
By now, Reach was scarcely any more than a dot in the Athena's aft sensors, but it was still weighing heavily on the crew, and Hoshi. They'd all seen glassed worlds before, but the idea of Reach being glassed was bizarre. Not even in their worst nightmares had anyone seen that coming. Now, as Hoshi looked around at her officers, she saw the same, dark look. It wasn't fear, exactly, or despair. More a realisation of just how close to the edge humanity was getting.
Hamalki's assurances that Earth was safe helped. Despite the need for minimal comn traffic, he had transmitted some pictures of Earth and Luna from when the Twilight had last been docked, and Monty had duly distributed them throughout the ship. There were distinct scars around the planet; a small part of eastern Africa appeared glassed, several orbital elevators were wrecked, and dozens of the orbital MAC guns were gone. However, the knowledge that Earth was there, and intact, was a comfort.
Well...perhaps not to everyone. The Athena's passengers were a mystery to everyone but themselves, and clearly happy to keep it that way.
"Ma'am," Monty said softly. "Receiving live comn broadcast from dead ahead. Toughest encryption I've ever seen, coming from the Halcyon. It's a Command-level neural link, labelled...as the...ah...the UNSC Logistical Corps." He snorted in disbelief. "They could just label it as ONI, ya know..."
"But where would be the fun in that?" Hoshi said with a grim smile. "Let the spooks have their fun, Monty. Pipe it into my neural lace, and step out."
The AI nodded, and gestured; instantly, Hoshi felt a brutally sharp sting at the back of her head. It took considerable effort to refrain from wincing as she closed her eyes.
The moment they closed, all sound from around Hoshi snapped off, as if by a switch. Before her, surrounded in only a vague whiteness, appeared a rather young (and, she couldn't help noticing, rather attractive) man. His uniform was spick and span, with the bars of a Rear Admiral gleaming on his shoulders, and a businesslike expression on his face.
"Sorry to go to all this trouble Captain," Gomez began. He had a rather soft voice. "I hate neural comns as much as anyone else, but the protocol is damned clear on this one." The admiral rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "How do you treat the headaches, anyway?"
Hoshi smiled widely. "Yoga and regular sex, sir. Does wonders."
Gomez's mouth opened slightly, before it settled into a smirk. "Hm. It appears I've missed a trick." His smirk faded somewhat as he added "To business. Project ORION III, codeword classification Patriot one, eight, three, nine, one. Verification indigo twenty nine, July 2551."
"Secondary classification Fraternity, four, two, six, nine, one. Verification green seventy seven, September 2552." Hoshi sighed, wiping her forehead. For some reason, the electronic environment felt quite hot. "Here's the timeline, sir. We left Onyx on schedule on September 2nd, and arrived at New Gaia on September 16th. The Covenant were glassing the planet even as we arrived, and had more or less finished. We were lucky to get out in one piece. The Covenant managed to detonate an antimatter explosive close to us." Hoshi's smile returned, although it was a sad one. "I used one of their frigates to shield us from the explosion, but the bastard peppered us with point defence lasers before we could get away. Mostly minimal damage, but I lost my birds." At Gomez's expression, she added "My Longsword squadron, sir. They were providing close cover from Seraphs. They-"
Gomez raised a hand, stopping her. "It's okay Captain, I'll read your full report later."
The admiral's interruption irritated Hoshi for a moment, but she shook it off. "Something about that antimatter affected the Slipspace drive. The armour and surrounding compartments are fine, but the actual machinery is completely wrecked. It worked well enough to get us to Slipspace, but our velocity-or relative velocity, anyway-was twenty times slower than usual. My engineers worked all the way from New Gaia to Onyx, but it was an impossible job."
"Gaia to Onyx...that would've taken a while."
"Yes sir. Twelve weeks, more or less. It should've taken us a lot longer, but something happened to local Slipspace that greatly increased our speed." She raised her own hand this time. "Don't ask me how, sir, because I don't have a clue. I've got the best starship AI in the fleet, and he didn't have a clue. Under the circumstances, I wasn't going to complain, though."
Gomez smiled grimly. "But when you got to Onyx, you saw a bunch of debris and weird radiation. Correct?"
"Yes sir. We Slipped in on December 24th. No sign of Camp Currahee, no sign of the orbital satellites, no sign of anything, really. The planet was still there, but a lot of the geography had changed. Plus a bunch of debris in a neat pile a few light seconds off. Some was UNSC, some was Covenant, some was...alien. Wouldn't match anything in our computers. I sent down some reconnaissance teams, but there wasn't much to see."
Gomez's expression was sympathetic. "It's a long story, captain. To be honest, you probably won't believe it unless I tell you face to face, rather than avatar to avatar. That does, however, give us new information. None of our probes have returned from Onyx since the battle, but now that we know the planet is intact, that gives us options." He stroked his chin for a moment, then shook his head. "Well, that's beside the point right now. HIGHCOM will decide our next action in regards to Onyx. Return to your report."
Hoshi opened her mouth to ask one of a thousand questions, like how the hell the planet might not be intact, but held her tongue. Gomez was clearly an easygoing man, and friendly, but even if he was one of the good ones he was still an admiral, and she was a captain giving her report.
"Well, without orders and a crippled Slipspace drive, I decided the best thing to do would be to slowboat to Reach. I knew that if Onyx had been hit, the other colonies nearby were also at risk, and if I ran into another New Gaia I might not be so lucky. Plus it might add months to total journey time if I ran into another glassed colony. So we stocked up on food and water, then went into cryo for the trip here. I didn't expect...this."
"None of us did," Gomez said softly. "'Course, none of us expected the Covenant to hit Earth, either. It's been a busy year." He folded his arms. "Gamma Company?"
"Locked and loaded," Hoshi replied, repressing a shiver. Out of the entire complement on Athena, excluding Montgomery, only Hoshi knew the truth about Gamma Company, and it had haunted her ever since Ambrose had told her. "Security has been maintained. I had to clear an entire deck to do it, but nobody but me knows the truth."
"Good. As soon as you get here, we'll send over a repair team from the Waterloo on a Pelican. The moment they're done, set a direct course for Earth." He paused, and smirked. "Obviously, the Cole Protocol does not apply. Straight course, maximum speed. When you get there, raise HIGHCOM, and get Parangosky on the line. She'll provide new orders."
It took a half-second for Hoshi to run through the logic, and she frowned. "You have a spare Slipspace drive?"
Gomez shook his head. "Waterloo is donating hers for the cause. Before we leave, we'll just hard-link her to the Halcyon for the trip home. The priority is that you get home before the Covenant get another crack at you, and this is the fastest way to do it. None of the other captains have the clearance to take Gamma onboard." He stopped, and stood slightly straighter. "And make no mistake, Captain, the Covenant will be tracking you right now. I suspect the only reason they haven't attacked yet is they need time to gather their forces."
Hoshi hesitated. "I don't like running from a fight sir. And with all due respect, you could use an extra frigate."
"Perhaps," Gomez said with a shrug. "But not today. Your precious cargo can be just as effective, and just as important, as this entire battlegroup. I can't risk that."
As he finished his sentence, a blue-hued man appeared out of thin air next to Hoshi, his centuries old uniform looking rather pretentious compared to the UNSC's.
"Sirs," he said curtly. "Slipspace ruptures between Halcyon and Athena."
Gomez snorted in wry amusement, and gave Hoshi a sardonic look. As they both returned to the real world, he muttered "The bastards just can't make it easy, can they?"